Autistic People and Imagination

When they say autistic people don’t have imagination and don’t engage in imaginative play, what do they mean? I knew I had imagination, and that was one of the biggest things holding me back from thinking I could be autistic, because that was something always stated and listed and formalized. Autistic people don’t have imagination.

I never really was into playing school or house, like other kids were (why would you be a grown-up when you could be a HORSE?). But I would play all sorts of imaginative games with my cousins and my sister and myself.

I played Orphan Kittens. We played all sorts of games with our stuffed animals and model horses. Admittedly, we often wrote out the scripts before and they were usually similar patterns that happened… but that is a trait common to children. (You notice it when you babysit or have younger siblings or really just encounter things like that).

We played Lord of the Rings and went on quests where grapefruits or a pomegranate were palantir. There was a game where we were princesses that also involved horses and we would switch roles between them back and forth. We also played a lot of complicated games involving chickens and occasionally my cousin’s goat which we were all afraid of, but those were not always imaginative games–I don’t really remember the point of them, so they are a bit irrelevant.

In 4th grade, I made snail houses and fairy houses and for one brief moment, I was a trendsetter when everyone else in 4th grade also made “fairy friends”. (Although I was a bit upset that they treated it as a game, because I at least half–probably more–believed in it). I played games where the swings were the way to outer space and the only way back was to go down the slides. I was good at coming up with games and stories, so as long as everyone else was still young enough to play stories and pretend at lunch, I had company. They grew out of it earlier, so I switched to books.

And I lived in stories and books (and still do) despite the best efforts of literature analysis to beat that love out of me. And I still half-live in a world of stories, although I read much less than my high school minimum of a book a day. (I have a lot more reading to do of other materials than I did in high school.) (Also, I don’t like going new places myself which is why I haven’t been yet to the [non-campus] library even though I love libraries.)

Anyway, on any given day, I’m about 80% sure I’m autistic and I’ve had official professional people agree with me, so I just wanted to summarize this to say that autistic people can be creative too and that is a silly requirement to say they can’t.

And now for a bit of happiness…

I am so lucky that I had an awesome family. That I grew up very free of physical health issues. That I had only a smattering of mental health issues, but they knew depression was hereditary, so they warned us and prepared us.* I’m so lucky that when I finally told them I might be autistic maybe, they just researched a bunch and talked about it and found places near home that seemed good and safe and lovely and nonthreatening and offered to drive me to be tested if I wanted to.

I’m so lucky that my family knew I was quiet around strangers and didn’t like big crowds, and they didn’t much either, so I never was forced much into intolerable social situations. And that they were fine with my younger sister ordering for me at restaurants and talking to strangers for me, even though I was the older one. I’m so lucky that they taught me rules and usually even explained the whys. That I grew up learning the names of plants and the breeds of horses and was very thoroughly encouraged in these endeavors. That my whole family had scripts and traditions and we had whole days where pretty much everything was a quote.

I am so lucky that I have this wonderful, wonderful job (well, grad school, but they pay me, so it is sort of the same as a job), where I can do interesting useful things all day. And be quiet and have my own lovely space.

And where a lot of it is work-at-your-own-pace/on-your-own-time, so if I am having a bad, jittery, jumpy day, I can go home. I can wrap up my experiment for the day (probably) and go home. I might have to come back later and do some work on my own time or on the weekend or stay late a couple days to make up for it. But I can schedule things. I can generally be in charge of my own schedule.

And that is amazing.

And I have an awesome boyfriend who sits with me through meltdowns and talks to me. Who finds ways to understand me when I can’t talk. Who explains rules and general social-people-things that I don’t understand. Who walked me to counseling every week in undergrad when I was terrified of going because of talking and helped me figure out life. He makes everything make sense when the world is spinning out of control around me. Who has a pretty amazing family who invites me to their family events, too. Who goes on walks with me to find new food and explore things. We go to zoos and museums and aquariums and find quiet places in the city.

My life is actually pretty wonderful.

And I’m writing this while I am in lab on a weekend studying for finals for classes that are unnecessarily specific. And I still won’t be done with my rotation project until after finals, because various lab mishaps and misbehaving science stuff (and mistakes). And it is way too cold in this city right now and I have to keep pausing my lab work to sit on my hands. But you know what? I love that those are my biggest problems I am having right now. Those problems (well, except being cold, that’s just a general problem that can affect most people) are luxury problems.

My life is pretty darn awesome.

*It was still not-good. But that wasn’t my family’s fault that we have a genetic predisposition to depression and they told us about it and were very supportive when it happened and I told them.

Flashbaaack to the past

Reflecting on my autistic growing up, even though I didn’t really know I was autistic then, and no one else really did either. Because I come from a strange family to begin with. These are both happy stories mostly to make up for the more depressing memories that showed up recently. But also because I am generally a happy person who has had a mostly happy life and I don’t want to deceive anyone into thinking otherwise. AND because I really like telling stories about things that have already happened.

My 16th birthday party was pretty awesome. I very thoroughly had forgotten about it, though. My youngest sister is turning 16 soon, though, so my mother brought it up in a conversation with me recently.

At this point in my life, I had two friends, which was really great. (A major improvement over the last couple of years before that, so I was happy.)

I invited my friends over.

For my 16th birthday, we looked up words in the dictionary and solved logic puzzles. Then we went to see Music & Lyrics. Then we came home and ate pie. Actually, we ate pie and cheesecake. Yes, we did get two different types of dessert for a three person party (and I only invited 2 people, so I wasn’t disappointed by lack of attendance or anything.) It was a lemon meringue pie and a kahlua cheesecake from Marie Callendar’s. (The desserts I had for my birthday every year.*) I think they got picked up after that and went home, but I’m not too clear on those details. It was a long time ago, you see.

This is very different than what either of my two sister’s birthday parties would have been like. Although, I am also more organized than either of my sisters, so I think I am the only one who will have had a 16th birthday party, which I am amused by, because I am hands-down the least social of us all.

(If my youngest sister had a 16th birthday party, she would probably want to invite boys. Even the middle one wouldn’t have thought of that.)

But this was my kind of party.

Also, when I was 16, I realized how to hang out with my friends without going to football games. This also resulted in a MAJOR improvement in my social life.

Freshman year of high school, I had a vague idea that high school football games were a place where people would hang out. Sometimes people even asked me if I was going to the football game. So I went, with my father, and sat and watched the game.  I don’t really like football all that much. And I certainly didn’t then. (I’ve come to like football more because of the social aspects that college games have and also I may have been minorly brainwashed by school spirit into being slightly invested in the outcome of the game.)  And football games are loud.

Also, sitting next to your father who is totally way too much into this high school football game (and actually really about any sport because apparently he reads the local sports scores summary in the newspaper for every single sport for every single school in the entire (VERY DENSELY POPULATED COUNTY THAT WE LIVE IN) county, but not in a creepy way), is really not an effective way to socialize with your peers. I’m not really sure, still, where they are at high school football games, but they are generally not sitting next to my father.**

Sophomore year, I had updated this a bit and had actually made friends to meet a friend at the game (one of the two friends I invited to my party!) and then we would usually hang out at her house afterwards because she lived relatively close to where most of the games were.

The breakthough came when we realized that neither of us really liked football games so we could skip that step of hanging out and just go straight to someone’s house where we could hang out and make cookies and read separate books in the same room  and stuff that friends do like that. And talk about AP Biology, because that was really what I did.

Trouble with initiating social activities.

That’s a thing.

*For some reason, I always was allowed to get 2, while my sisters only got one cake. I think it was because I wanted lemon meringue but my mother didn’t like lemon meringue, so she got a cheesecake because she liked that. (And I did, too.) It was ok, because only my dad and I liked the lemon meringue (in my family), so I could eat both for a while, then just lemon meringue and I would have leftover birthday cake for a long time.
**Although surprisingly, sometimes they actually are, because my dad is a “cool dad”, but for real, but that makes it a lot more complicated, so we shall ignore this for now.

Oldest Sister

sister, sisters, siblings, children, oldest sister, youngest sister

I am the oldest sister.

I am the safety police. I will tell you when you aren’t wearing your seatbelt correctly. I will pull the car over and not drive until you fix it.

I am probably also the fun police.

I was considered old when I was 10. Old enough to help and have responsibilities and to be the bigger person. I believed in Santa Claus until I was 14. You (youngest sister) were still considered the baby at 10. Not expected to be in charge or responsible. But you also stopped believing in Santa Claus far before 10.

One of you is 2 years younger. One of you is 7 years younger. (Also, this is very confusing use of you, because mostly it is plural, but sometimes it is singular).

I am in charge of making sure we have everything. Of making sure everyone is here and gathered.* I will make sure we have all the tickets before we leave. I will make sure we have the maps. I will check for food and drinks, so that no one gets grumpy.

I will wake you up for school so we aren’t late. I will feed the animals in the morning so we aren’t late. I will drive to and from school while you fall asleep in the car and I listen to NPR.

I will spend hours and hours helping you with homework. Proofreading essays. Explaining algebra. Explaining calculus. Explaining organic chemistry. Because that is what I am expected to do.

Younger siblings are in charge of making the messes.

Of having the dance schedules and soccer schedules that rearrange our lives. I will drive to pick you up and do my homework in the car. I will wait after school for several hours because you have practice and people aren’t going to drive twice to pick me up then come and get you an hour later. But it is ok. I will do my homework at school and in the car.

I am in charge of cleaning them up.

I will stop doing my homework to help you with yours. I will arrange skype calls to help you at home to help when I am at college. I will make time in between my 3 jobs and classes and research to answer your questions. Because that is expected of me.

I am certainly not the fun sister. But I am reliable.

I will make sure you buy your flights home.

I will wake up early to check us in for our flights.

I will sit there when you yell at me for not ever understanding how hard it is to be the youngest. Because you don’t know how to be the oldest. (And if you hit me, I’ll hit you, too.)**

And even though we are all basically adults now, I will still keep an eye on you when we are out. I will make sure I always know where you are. Because that is general basic safety.

When I am home on vacation, I do your chores because you have homework and you’re busy.

I can’t tell you that anything is wrong with me. I can’t tell you about the depression*** or the autism (except actually the autism probably will get told eventually because it isn’t actually wrong), because my job is to fix problems. It isn’t to create them. But I can listen to you tell me about how you don’t have a boyfriend.

But it is ok, because you will go to the stores and buy me clothes so I don’t have to. Or have me sit in the dressing room and bring back sets of clothes for me to try on so I don’t have to go to the store. You will put my hair up in nice ways for school dances. You will introduce me to people.

You ordered for me at restaurants until I was in high school. You are the one in charge of asking for directions if we ever get lost (which admittedly, usually happens when I let you navigate.) You are the one who talks to strangers. You tell me who people are when I can’t recognize them.

You bring home new books. You go to strange places and bring home stories and magical cloth covered in sparklies and mirrors and bracelets and camels and birds.

And we played with our guys and our horses and our stories and shared books. And climbed trees and swam and fought dragons and dressed up our dogs in our parents clothes and made potions out of mud and plants and made forts.

And you are my younger sisters. So it is ok.

*Although one time I didn’t and I lost my youngest sister and we had to call the police and everything and that was problematic, although it wasn’t even all my fault and I handled it quite well, I thought. And also then I didn’t have to babysit for a while.
**Siblings hit each other sometimes. We probably should stop now that we are adults. But we don’t do it all that frequently, so it is probably all food.
***But really, that’s a really secret, secret thing mostly. I don’t tell most people. I only told my parents because I was on their insurance and I sort of needed medication and they would get a bill for it. (They were really helpful and understanding about it.) (Mostly, I just tell boyfriend.) (But this isn’t really the point of this.
Also sorry about the creepy face-blur thing. But I liked the picture, and some people can recognize faces and that sort of thing. And I also like being a secret.


I didn’t learn to read particularly early in life (nor particularly late).

It was probably around kindergarten.

I wasn’t especially good at reading when I first started.

In kindergarten, I had a copy of Black Beauty. And I was obsessed with horses. So I wanted to read it. My mother didn’t discourage me, but she was convinced I wouldn’t finish it. Because I wasn’t a particularly stellar reader by any means. She offered it to be a bedtime story, where she read a chapter aloud to me every night. But I wanted to read Black Beauty. And I wanted to read it by myself. It took months. But I finished.

And once I started reading, well, I never stopped.

It got to the point where we had to have rules about reading, or I would never get anything done.

Reading was the only time I would sit still. And I would sit still for hours. Because I was reading.

We* weren’t allowed to read before breakfast (or else we would never get ready for school on time.) We weren’t allowed to read when guests were over for a playdate (because then we would ignore them). We weren’t allowed to read more than a chapter after we were tucked in at night (because then we would read for hours and hours and never get any sleep).

When I read, I read in blocks down the page. When I read, I don’t see the words. I just see stories in my head. (There are several circumstances where I think I have seen the movie-version of a book, but really I’m just watching it in my head).

I’ve read classics and Tamora Pierce and Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett (currently obsessed with him) and silly books and books on the Civil War and every textbook my cousin had when I visited them as my freshman year of college.

Words words words.

I will read anything with words.

One time my older cousins wanted to play “School” (which I thought was a silly game). So they gave me a dictionary thinking that would make me play instead of just reading the book. That was the day I realized how fun it can be to read dictionaries and look at all the organized, beautiful, alphabetical lists of words.

I read ridiculously fast as well. Something like reading the sixth Harry Potter book twice between 1:30am when I got home and 6 am when I went to sleep. (Because once you’ve read through a book once, it’s fun to reread it with the knowledge of the ending, to look for hints along the way.)

Reading quickly has helped me so much in school. Because I read so much faster than average, it gives me more time on the actual work/writing the answers. It adds up over multi-page tests. And it helped me with reading comprehension.

(Especially standardized tests.)

E. from The Third Glance talks about reading comprehension here.

I survived “reading comprehension” by reading and thinking about the questions FIRST, before reading the text. I would try to understand what it was they were asking in my own words. I would rephrase things I perceived as “important” parts of the question multiple different ways, so it was in my brain. Why? Because then I knew exactly what I had to look for in the text. I could then read, looking for the keywords I knew would be relevant, and answer the questions as they came up. I hated doing this, because it meant that I was missing most of the point of the text. I could understand a sentence, maybe two at a time, tops. I would be able to process almost nothing. Yet I could answer most (but not all) of the questions. Those questions of “what was the author feeling when s/he wrote this passage?” and “what value is the author trying to portray in line 12?” will always be a mystery to me. Sometimes I can guess right, but seriously, I have NO IDEA if the author was trying to tell me something or not. My absolute “favorite” of this type of question is “would the author of passage 9 agree with the author of passage 12 on some topic that is only vaguely related to either topic addressed in passages 9 and 12?” 

And these questions are frustrating. And they are ALWAYS on standardized tests. I think the only reason I did so well on these was that I was good enough at reading that I could read the passage through every time multiple times during the test, and still finish before everyone else, because I was just lucky enough to read that fast. And we had some of these during class and everything I got wrong in school, my mom would go over with me at home and explain WHY it was wrong and have me do sample problems sometimes until I knew how to do things correctly. So I learned the tricks for these problems and got much better at guessing. (But I still feel like I’m lying on things like this and still feel like I’m lying when I write English essays on topics like this, so I suppose I should be glad that I am probably done with this FOREVER). Because I LOVE stories and I LOVE facts but I do not like the essay version of interpreting them at all.

And I always read all the assigned readings for class. And I never understood why they would say to study from notes instead of the book, because it would take me less time to reread the chapter instead of my mostly illegible notes. (And even now, I still remember all the diagrams from my AP Biology textbook.)

Also, when you read you don’t have to talk to people.

And that is quite nice as well.
* I use we because this applies to both me and Medium Sister.

I do not like green eggs and ham

At home, we quote.

When I do not like something, I say “I do not like green eggs and ham”
(The response is, “I do not like them Sam-I-am” and usually someone will respond with it).

Go dog go.
Stop dog stop.

Red fish, blue fish.
One fish, two fish.

Do you like my hat?
Yes, yes I like your party hat?

(Can you tell we like Dr. Seuss?* It’s peppered into my daily language.)

Talking in quotes is a form of echolalia, I believe. Quoting quoting quoting. Repeating things already said, either immediately or delayed.

(This one had a little star, this one had a little car.
My what a lot of fish there are.)

We have ways we say goodbye.
“Goodbye, loooove…. Goooodbye love. Just came to say gooodbyyyyyeee love, gooodbye…..”
(That was for singing at cousins. Loudly. As we chased the car down the road.)

We sing a lot. Sometimes instead of talking. Sometimes we will switch the words to fit the situations (but mostly we will just pick a song that fits the mood or emotion we want the other person to know instead and keep the original words).

Sometimes for hours, I don’t use my own words. (Sometimes instead, we just rhyme all the time.) We can craft whole conversations from things already said or written once. The sentences are already made. We just have to pick them up and say them.

My whole, extended family does it.

Is it normal? (Does it matter?)

“I don’t know, go ask your mother.”**

*Although Go Dog Go isn’t Dr. Seuss.
**That’s from Hop on Pop!

The people in my family–or why I use we so frequently instead of I

Over time, I have managed to collect quite a group of people and animals and things of that nature. Sometimes, I am sure they will pop up here from time to time, since they are part of my life. But, I am trying to keep this generally secret and anonymous, so you don’t get to learn their real names.

So, I have a family. A mom and a dad (fairly easy name wise. Sometimes I will group them as parents). I have two sisters. This is trickier. One is two years younger and one is seven years younger. I should give them names to make it easier to distinguish between them. We shall call them… Medium Sister and Small Sister.

Also, a lot of the time, when I am talking about things when I was younger, I will use we. The we is Medium Sister and I. We were generally close in age, so we did most things together.

I didn’t run until she did. I just walked everywhere. And then one day she started running. So I had to run to keep up. She ordered food for me in restaurants so I didn’t have to talk to strangers. I played with her and her friends a lot. (It was almost better than having my friend over, because then I could walk away when I wanted a break. Because I didn’t need to keep her friend occupied the whole time or stay with them the whole time like I did with my friend.)*

Small sister is good, too. She’s just a lot younger than me, so we didn’t do as much with her.

We also had a pack of cousins.** The pack was on my mom’s side of the family. It was lovely because we were all within a few years of each other, lived within two hours of each other, and were all rather strange. So this pack is often included when I talk about my family.

We also have the sort of family that comes along with that. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts, people-we-aren’t-sure-how-they-are-related-to-us-but-let’s-just-call-them-aunt… On my mom’s side of the family they are all strange and lovely.

My dad’s side of the family is nice, too, but they aren’t as much part of my pack. (But if any of them ever read this and figure out who they are, I love you guys too! You’re just all younger than me!)

So with this family, it was ok that I didn’t really have friends or that they moved away so frequently. Because there always was Medium Sister (and even Small Sister) and at least once a month, we would see some part of the pack. So it was hard to be lonely. And I think that’s part of the reason I didn’t pick up my autism as soon. Because I had my family and we were all strange when we were together, so nothing really stuck out about me as being particularly strange.

And now this has rambled on a bit more than I intended, but I think that’s ok. My family is a rambling sort of family. There’s always something to branch off and pick up and discuss some more. So it makes sense that most posts about them are rambling sorts of posts.

*Also note the singular friend. I generally had one friend (other than the horrible stretch of years known as middle school). It was all good. However, they had a horrible habit of moving away every year. So that was unfortunate. In high school, I got one that stayed the whole time though. So that was great. I’m still friends with her now. She is in med school.
**We almost were a pack who ran wild in a swarm together doing things with dogs and horses and chickens. (We also have a swarm of pets, having had at one point or another, chickens, horses, goats, rabbits, pigs, sheep, dogs, fish…)